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Over Before It Was Over

If it had been at all delightful, Tuesday’s twi-night doubleheader at Citi Field could have been billed a Berra’s Delight. Anybody who could make sense of the nonsense at hand would have been admitted free. Or admitted at all.

Nobody is admitted to baseball games in 2020, of course. After fourteen innings of futility, nobody who somehow still continues to like the Mets should mind the stringent admission standards. If anything, security should be more careful about letting people who claim to be major league ballplayers enter the facility.

The ones dressed as Miami Marlins would have made it in based on this rigorous standard, never mind how unfamiliar or inexperienced they chronically strike us as. They played like big leaguers for the two seven-inning games that for this season constitute a doubleheader. They’re the ones who were worth the price of non-existent admission. They shut out the Mets not once, but twice. Not that any of us would have knowingly paid for such a result, but they looked pretty good.

The Mets looked the opposite. The Mets looked like not big leaguers. The Mets didn’t even look like the home team, not in the sense of a team that automatically gets last licks, though by the last of the second game, they sure looked licked.

We understand why the Mets batted first in the second game of the sweeping shutout the Marlins inflicted on them [1]. It was the makeup for last week’s postponement [2] in Miami. Was it last week? Maybe it was last year. The Mets were on a three-game winning streak. Yeah, that can’t be this year or this team. Either way, the Mets batted in the top halves of innings and wore their home pinstripes, yet otherwise looked unsuited to any professional baseball field. To be fair, when they batted last in the first game, they also didn’t look like they had the slightest clue regarding what to do while their runners stood on or near bases.

Also, it rained, just in case you wished you were there.

Game One was the one that got soaked and interrupted. Rick Porcello [3] gave up four runs in three innings before the heavens tired of his efforts. When the skies cleared, Corey Oswalt [4] was nearly flawless for four innings of relief, but it was for naught in the context of winning the opener. The Mets attempted to hit with runners in scoring position ten times. They were successful in none of those attempts.

Without ever leaving town, the Mets became the visitors in the second game, but we could recognize them easily. They were the guys still not hitting with runners in scoring position. This time they had fewer opportunities, but they made exactly as much of them. Just as Oswalt, a nominal starter, displayed hypercompetence in relief in the first game, Seth Lugo [5], the Mets’ most essential reliever for a couple of years, emerged as a top-flight starter. Or re-emerged, for those who can remember Seth keeping the Mets afloat in their last successful charge toward October, way back in 2016. Seth looked like he never left the rotation, setting down the Marlins in order three times over three innings.

Then, because it’s 2020, Seth was done for the night. There was some outstanding newspeak explanation for why Lugo, at 39 pitches and on more than a week of rest, couldn’t go out for the fourth. Too many “ups and downs,” Luis Rojas said. The phrase didn’t likely apply to the Mets as a whole, for they were noticeably lacking ascent Tuesday night.

Downs, however, they displayed in abundance. Recently reliable Jared Hughes [6] allowed two runs in the fourth, which was like allowing four runs in the sixth-and-a-half, I guess, considering we had only seven innings to forge a tie. In the top of the sixthish, the lone semi-convincing Met threat of the nightcap went awry when pinch-runner Juan Lagares [7] — oh, Juan Lagares is back (and wearing No. 87) — was doubled off first base; Luis Guillorme [8]’s sizzling liner was caught by Miami first baseman Lewin Diaz with Juan on his way to second. Diaz was much closer to first base by then, so, yeah, double play.

After Rojas deployed multiple defensive machinations entering the bottom of the sixth — Lagares to center after running for Cano, who had pinch-hit for Rosario; Nimmo from center to left; McNeil from left to second; Guillorme from second to short — inept defense cost the Mets another run. To be fair, the ineptitude was a product of those Mets who hadn’t changed positions during the inning and it was revealed via the hyperaggressive offensive tactics of a single Marlin.

First, with Jeurys Familia [9] pitching, Jon Berti walked. Then Berti stole second, as Ali Sanchez [10], starting his first major league game, couldn’t get a handle on the pitch Berti ran on. After an out was recorded (when Lagares neatly reminding us his glove is still golden), Berti sensed an opening at third base and took it. J.D. Davis [11] was not playing close to the bag, thus, the Marlin reasoned, why not steal it? It wasn’t just that he stole it. He hopped a couple of times as Familia threw to Sanchez then dashed to his destination. A delayed steal. If you didn’t have a rooting interest, you would have admired the ingenuity of it all.

But you hadn’t admired nothin’ yet, for Berti soon took off on his third base-stealing romp of the sixth inning. Once more, Davis was nowhere within range of the baserunner, who by now had traipsed down the line toward home. When Sanchez, a 29th man on a 28-man roster in a makeup doubleheader necessitated by positive tests for a pathogen if ever there was one, took his sweet time lobbing a return throw to Familia, Berti had his cue. He took off for home. Then he stumbled. Then he barely kept his feet. Then he clumsily maintained his forward motion.

Then he scored, because that was the kind of night it was for the Mets. The Marlins didn’t hit with this particular runner in scoring position, yet he crossed the plate unimpeded, and did so damn entertainingly. Empty stands notwithstanding, the last segment of Berti’s journey cried out for the swelling strings of “The Gathering Crowds [12]” and inclusion in the closing credits of This Week in Baseball.

Berti’s posterizee Sanchez was in the picture because Tomás Nido [13] was on the nebulous injured list used for COVID-19. Though nothing specific was announced, it is easily inferred that either Nido or Andrés Giménez [14] tested positive while the other player was determined to have been in close contact. Same equation for coaches Gary DiSarcina and Hensley Meulens, neither of whom is currently with the club. The collective absence of these four individuals reminded us of the serious undertones of the 2020 season. The bottom of the sixth reminded us how farcical baseball can appear these days when you’re on the wrong end of three stolen bases by one opponent.

No offense to Sanchez, who was transferred over from the Alternate Site for a day. That’s another 2020 thing. Nobody is called up to the majors, exactly. You’re sent over from shipping to help out in receiving. Well, Sanchez didn’t much help with receiving, but perhaps he’ll have better days. Or half-days. If it wasn’t him and his three innings of previous big league experience pulling caddy duty for Wilson Ramos [15] in the nightcap, it would have been Patrick Mazeika, also called in from the branch office in Brooklyn to stand by and be ready in Queens. In a public health crisis, your usual backup catcher suddenly becomes the indispensable man.

Perhaps had this been a doubleheader of what we used to call normal proportions — nine innings apiece; team at home serving as the home team; it not getting late early (even with the second game starting at 9:40) — the Mets might have shaken off their dampness and stormed from behind in dramatic fashion. We might now be praising their eighth-inning thunder, their ninth-inning lightning, their indefatigable gumption no matter the weather. But this doubleheader, like all 2020 doubleheaders, was brought to you by 7 and 7, the official cocktail of improvised contingency planning. In these two seven-inning games, the Mets were downed twice, 4-0 and 3-0.

Whatever the Mets did Tuesday would have qualified as history, given that this was the first Met doubleheader of its kind, but it was also a throwback to a shade of darker franchise lore, for it was the first doubleheader in which the Mets were swept while zipped in 45 years. Because institutional memory is nowadays like a starting pitcher pitching into the fourth inning — something you don’t see much anymore — this fact was repeated robotically without context once it was shared by Elias or whoever provided it to the media. Here’s your context if you’re curious: when it last happened, on August 5, 1975, the Mets’ manager was Yogi Berra. When next the Mets played, the Mets’ manager was Roy McMillan, which is to say getting shut out twice in the same day (by the Montreal Expos, each time by a score of 7-0; also in a Tuesday twi-nighter, also in Flushing) used to get a manager fired. Well, that and his team stumbling along aimlessly…as opposed to stumbling along purposefully, which is what Berti did in the bottom of the sixth.

Berra’s Met legacy is not getting canned on top of getting swept while getting blanked. He’s Yogi Berra. He’s the manager who pronounced the Mets’ season not over in 1973 when it appeared to be and then presided over a startling rebirth. But that was 1973, which, it turned out, didn’t cut endless amounts of ice. The Mets weren’t good in 1974 and, though they were better in 1975, they weren’t what you’d objectively term splendid (56-53), and they weren’t remotely close to where they needed to be in August to compete for the division title, which was the only ticket a league punched for postseason in those simpler times. Despite how well Yogi’s best-loved lines hold up (“this is the part of our homestand where we go on the road,” you can imagine him explaining as the “visiting” manager Tuesday night), there isn’t always an adorably repeatable phrase to guide a skipper of a sinking ship around icebergs of mounting frustration and stubborn underachievement.

When Berra was fired, the Mets trailed first-place Pittsburgh by 9½ games with 53 games to go. McMillan was exactly the man to turn the ship around for a few weeks (his first win, on August 6, was shortened by rain). Then he wasn’t; the 1975 Mets finished 10½ behind first-place Pittsburgh. The 2020 Mets trail San Francisco for the final NL final playoff spot by 1½ games with 32 games to go, as all it takes to advance this year is claiming the second-best non-first/non-second place record…and completing the season with non-infected players. The Giants are the target today. Last week it was the Reds, I think. The playoff race is more fluid than a 7 and 7 whose rocks have turned to water. It not being over until it’s over still applies to Met seasons that aren’t over.

But if even the sainted Yogi Berra can be called out at home, I’d suggest Luis Rojas do whatever a manager can do with a compromised coaching staff and drill into his lads a few things about how to compete in every baseball game they play and how to win a bunch more than they have. At the very least, Luis, maybe let Lugo get up to set down more batters when he’s proving himself unhittable. What was it your predecessor from 1972 to 1975 said again? “When ya got one thing goin’ right when everything is goin’ wrong, ya don’t want everything to go wrong, especially when the top of the seventh is already the bottom of the ninth, and if you’re playin’ the ninth, there’s already a runner on second, and then ya know you’re never gonna get the hit ya need.”

Something like that.